FINDING MY RELIGION
The Doctor Is Out
San Francisco Chronicle:
Monday, April 18, 2005:David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate
Life was working out as planned for Alka Patel, a 36-year-old
assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California,
who had dreamed about becoming a doctor since childhood.
Her family was thrilled when Patel, who was born in England and lived in her
parent's native India for two years before moving to the Bay Area at the age
of 7, returned to San Francisco two years ago for her job at UCSF.
Then came a surprising announcement: Patel was leaving it all behind -- her
medical practice, her possessions, everything. Next month she will move to
Parmarth Niketan, an ashram on the banks of the Ganges River in the Indian
town of Rishikesh. She plans to spend the rest of her life there.
The decision came as a shock to family and friends. How could she give up a
successful medical career to become a religious disciple? And why so far
away? Patel, who grew up in a religious Hindu family, says it comes down to
a matter of faith.
So what really prompted this decision to leave your life and work behind in
the States and move to an ashram in India??
Well, before I started my job at UCSF, I had a month to sort of play around.
So I planned this four-week trekking pilgrimage in the Himalayas with my
sister. My father wasn't very happy about it. He said, "You're just wasting
money. Two young girls going in the Himalayas by yourself. It's dangerous."
But I didn't feel there was any danger. I knew we were going to be fine.
On your trip you visited an ashram in Rishikesh, the same one you're going
to live in starting next month. What happened there?
We attended a ceremony called Ganga Aarti, which takes place around 6 p.m.
on the banks of the holy river, the Ganges. It's sort of like a spiritual
party, a joyous and wonderful time. You feel like everyone is this giant
family coming together. Pujya Swamiji, the spiritual head and president of
the organization, leads the Aarti. He has a wonderful, very peaceful voice.
I just closed my eyes and suddenly I felt a feeling of complete tranquility
come over me. It was like every lock that I'd ever had on my heart just came
flying open. I could literally feel them coming off, one by one. And tears
came trickling down my face. That night I did not sleep a wink. I felt like
the river kept calling me all night long. It was like this energy was
flowing past me and through me.
The river was calling you? What do you mean?
I didn't hear any voices, and I wasn't hallucinating. But I just felt like
she kept calling me, like I could feel her and hear her all night long.
Finally, I got out of bed around 2 or 3 in the morning, and tried to go to
the river. But the gates of the ashram were locked. So I went back to the
building where we were staying and climbed on top of the roof and sat there
and watched and meditated. After prayers the next morning, we left the
ashram and continued our trek for a couple of days. But my sister had left
some laundry at the ashram, so we came back for it. And when we were there
we had another meeting with Pujya Swamiji.
What did you talk about?
We were just casually talking. At one point I asked him something about my
work. He reached out his hand, and like an innocent child I grabbed it. He
looked me right in the eye and he said, "Just keep working, my dear, just
keep working." It was just a powerful force, you know. But it was so
peaceful and serene that I wasn't taken aback by it. I just looked him in
What happened next?
That night it was time for the Ganga Aarti again. We were at the banks of
the river. And I was sitting there, and the tears just started rolling and
rolling. There was just so much peace and serenity and so much bliss. During
that entire hour of the spiritual singing and chanting, I was just
mesmerized. I was there, but I wasn't there. I was conscious, but I wasn't
conscious. And then at the end of the hour, Swamiji usually goes to the
river to offer some flowers and some prayers before he turns around and
leaves to go back to the ashram. As he was leaving, he caught my eye from
afar, and it was like he was calling me. Our eyes met for a brief moment,
and I knew that he was asking me to go to where he was.
Did you follow him?
Yes, he has a garden where he meets with people. I found him there, and I
just sobbed and sobbed. As I was sitting there, I couldn't utter a single
word. I just kept crying. And he kept telling me, "I know, my dear. I know,
my dear. You don't have to say anything." It was as though in those few
moments every single one of my desires that I'd ever wanted in life was met
and melted at the same time. It was like all of my desires were gratified,
and then they just went -- poof.
What do you think happened that night?
I felt like the hand of God reached out and touched me. That's the only way
I can explain all of this -- I just feel like I've been so blessed in so
many ways. And my only prayer at that time, I remember telling my sister and
my aunt, was that I wished to God every single soul on this planet could
feel this unconditional love and bliss that I felt right then. From that
moment on, everything has become very, very clear. And all I want to do is
just serve people, you know, serve God, and serve humanity.
So now you're going back to India to live at the ashram.
And you're giving away most of your possessions as part of that transition.
Has that been difficult?
Not really. I feel like it's a liberating process, actually. I'm gaining so
much that I don't feel like there is really anything to give up.
Don't you care about material things anymore?
I used to care about them a lot. I lived in a fancy house in Florida, owned
a fancy car, had fancy clothes. I had shoes galore just like every other
woman. My father is going to have a garage sale just for the shoes [laughs].
I have no attachment to any of that anymore. I'm giving it all away.
Even your BMW?
Yeah, I don't know who's going to have it -- probably somebody in my family.
It doesn't really matter to me.
What about your medical practice? You've worked so hard to get where you are
-- all those years of school and training. Now you've got a great job. How
can you possibly give that up?
During my residency, I started to have lots of spiritual experiences,
especially with my patients. I became convinced that the more I learned
[about Western medicine], the less I knew about life. I kept learning and
learning, and it just felt like I knew nothing. And so, having spent this
many years in school and having achieved what I've achieved, it just doesn't
feel like I'm giving up anything. I feel like my real learning is about to
How is your family handling your decision? You're very close with them,
Yeah, we are. I'd been away for many years at medical school and residency.
Then I worked at the University of Florida for a while before I came out
here. So it's not even been quite two years since I've been back to the Bay
Area. I think they feel like they just got me back and now they're about to
lose me again. And this time I'm going even farther away. So they're having
a hard time.
Is that difficult for you?
Well, I think they don't understand what is really happening with me, and
the support isn't there. Maybe I'm not a parent, but I just don't get it.
You have three other children -- what's the big deal? I'm just one person,
How does your sister -- the one who visited India with you -- feel about
My sister could have been my biggest skeptic. She's younger than me by three
years and would love to play the protector role. But she was right there
with me when I had all those experiences. She said to me [when I told her I
was returning to the ashram], "I knew you were going to go back." She knows
this is what I'm supposed to be doing, even though to this day I think she's
struggling with accepting it.
What are you going to be doing at the ashram? Are you going to be studying,
meditating or what?
Probably all of those things. I don't know the details of what I'm doing,
and how my learning is going to take place. I don't know the structure, you
know, of any of this.
Does that bother you?
Not really. When people ask me about that -- "What do you mean, you don't
know?" -- I just say it's irrelevant. I want to do what I'm supposed to do,
and I'm going to learn what I'm supposed to learn, and that's that. All the
questions will be answered in due time. It's all based on faith.
Your plan is to spend the rest of your life at the ashram. Does that mean
you're giving up the idea of getting married or having a family?
Are you taking a vow of celibacy?
I would like to, eventually, yes. But I think that process is very long and
arduous. I'm probably going to be tested in many, many ways. Actually, the
moment I landed on U.S. soil [after coming back from India], I was being
Meaning you met someone?
No, I had already had a good friend in my life who, when I got back, wanted
to marry me.
What did you tell him?
That I couldn't marry him, because my heart would always be with God.
Was that difficult?
Sure. I spent a good part of my life thinking, "Why am I not married? Why
don't I have that someone special in my life?" So I'm no different from
anyone else, you know? But I always said I would never marry unless I found
the real love that I was seeking, and the real love that I was seeking is
here -- it's from God. I couldn't tell you the amount of tears I have shed
since I've come [to my decision] -- and they're not tears of sadness.
They're tears of peace. I wanted to be married, and I wanted to have
children of my own. But now it's like all the children of the world are my
When you talk about serving the world, it seems to me like you're already
doing that. You're helping babies that are sick and you're teaching medical
students. Why not just continue doing what you're doing?
Because I feel that my learning in this country is different from what I'm
about to begin in India. I'll always be a doctor. I don't think I could ever
give that up. I'll always want to heal people. But I want to be able to
understand how to heal people with their hearts and souls, not just their
Are you at all afraid about giving up your medical practice and making this
huge change in your life? Isn't there anything you're worried about?
I'm making this decision because I want to provide myself as a service to
people, and I feel like, "Hmm, am I going to be able to help people, really?
Who do I think I am? What am I going to do?" I don't know if that's fear,
but it's how I think sometimes. The mystery of all of this is that I feel
like a brand-new baby, like I'm learning how to walk, you know? I feel like
I've just been born. And my life is about to begin.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David
Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer,
cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site.
His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.